If debates in presidential primary elections are about culling the herd of candidates so that only the strongest are standing by the time votes are cast, then the first debate of the Democratic primary was brutally efficient.
There were five people on stage for the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2016 election cycle, hosted by CNN last night, but it quickly became obvious that only three of them are running for president: Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor Martin O’Malley.
All three faced difficult questions from moderator Anderson Cooper, ranging from issues as varied as race relations, foreign policy, economic inequality and gun control. For the most part, all three showed that they are able to take a few hits and remain standing. Clinton was smooth and polished, Sanders brash and passionate, and O’Malley earnest, if a bit preachy.
In the end, O’Malley will probably come out of the night as the biggest short-term winner, but that’s largely because he started with very low poll numbers. Two-and-a-half hours spent standing next to the much higher profile Clinton and Sanders will likely raise his name recognition among Democratic primary voters.
However, Clinton appeared to have done more than enough to preserve her status as frontrunner – and might even have delivered a performance strong enough to make vice president Joe Biden rethink his possible entry into the race. For his part, Sanders also delivered a strong performance that will likely keep him solidly in second place in the national polls.
All three, in the end, showed that they are viable candidates for the Democratic nomination.
Whatever it was that the other two were doing up there, it wasn’t making a credible bid for the nation’s highest office.
CNN plainly made the decision that former governor and U.S. Senator from Rhode Island Lincoln Chafee, and former Virginia Senator Jim Webb would be given considerably less time to speak than their three higher-profile rivals. In the end, they also made much worse use of the time they were given.
Webb repeatedly complained about not being paid enough attention, and made so many reference to his (unquestionably heroic) service in Vietnam more than 40 years ago that he appears to think that alone qualifies him to sit in the Oval Office.
Chafee, speaking through an oddly forced-looking smile, delivered wandering, singsong answers to questions, and repeatedly reminded everyone of his “high ethical standards” and the fact that he had never been associated with scandal during his time in office.
At one point, after Chafee attacked Clinton over her use of a private email server while secretary of state, Cooper asked Clinton if she would like to respond to him.
“No,” she said dismissively.
If the first two Republican debates had been that efficient in demonstrating who should and shouldn’t be on the stage, there wouldn’t be any need for the “kids’ table” debates that have been added to keep the number of candidates on the main stage manageable.
That left the bulk of the time to Clinton, Sanders, and O'Malley, who did a far better job using it.
Interestingly, Clinton overturned the conventional wisdom about how a frontrunner should approach a debate with lesser-known rivals by throwing the first real punch of the evening. After moderator Anderson Cooper challenged Sanders on his record on gun rights, he offered Clinton the opportunity to comment on her chief rival’s record.
Is he tough enough on guns? Cooper asked.
“No,” said Clinton, to cheers from the hall. Saying it is “time to stand up to the National Rifle Association,” she criticized Sanders for multiple votes that appeared to favor the gun lobby, putting the Vermont Senator on the defensive.
“As a Senator from a rural state, what I can tell Secretary Clinton is that all the shouting in the world is not going to keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have guns.”
O’Malley, who had previously looked flustered by repeated questions about his tenure as mayor of Baltimore, during which he promoted tough-on-crime laws that many believe worsened rather the lot of the city’s African American neighborhoods, piled on.
“I’m glad we’re talking about these things but I’ve actually done them,” he said, pointing to the passage of gun control legislation in Maryland during his time as governor.
Sanders, in what may have been his worst moment in the debate, attacked O’Malley’s inexperience, explaining that because he has never served in Congress he doesn’t appreciate the difficulty of passing gun control legislation.
But for the most part, the differences between the candidates were mostly a matter of degree rather than kind. Clinton and Sanders have both advocated increasing taxes on the wealthy, but have advocated different methods. Clinton has focused on taxing wealthy investors, while Sanders has been very clear about wanting to raise the marginal tax rates of high earners.
On education, Clinton and Sanders have both advocated for free tuition for students at four-year colleges. Clinton, however, advocates a number of qualifying requirements students would have to meet, where Sanders would make tuition government-funded with few strings attached.
Both stuck to the same arguments on Tuesday night.
Surprisingly, the issue of foreign trade, and particularly the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, which is strongly opposed by Sanders, and O’Malley, but which Clinton once supported, got relatively short shrift in the discussion. The most detailed treatment it received was when Cooper used her past support of the negotiations that led to the deal and her recent repudiation of the result to ask if she had the strength to stand by her principles. Clinton essentially repeated the argument she had used in the past: she supported the idea of negotiations, but found herself in opposition to the final product.
There were numerous instances of agreement among the candidates including, somewhat surprisingly, between Sanders and Clinton in the House Select Committee investigating the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya in 2012. The Republican-led committee has been aggressively investigating Clinton’s use of private emails – to the exclusion, critics say, of actually investigating the attacks.
Clinton dismissed the committee as “an arm of the Republican National Committee that was “meant to drive down my poll numbers.”
Sanders jumped in to say, “I think the secretary’s is right…I think the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails…Enough of the emails. Let’s talk about the real issues facing America.”
Clinton laughed out loud and, saying “Thank you Bernie. Thank you,” stepped from behind her podium to shake his hand.
All three candidates berated Wall Street and called for higher taxes on the wealthy. They all expressed admiration for President Obama while pledging that they would improve on his legacy in different areas.
As the campaign progresses, the differences between the three will be sharpened and made to look more dramatic than they are in reality, but on Tuesday night, the debate at least did the job of demonstrating that the party’s top contenders are, for better or worse, starting from very similar places.